On the subject of the string quartet: a stellar performance by Peter Lovesey

October 27, 2013 at 1:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

When I finished Cop To Corpse by Peter Lovesey, I thought to myself, It doesn’t get any better than this. I was wrong; it does.


The Tooth Tattoo is the story of a highly regarded quartet of stringed instrument players. The sudden loss of their violist has for a time taken them out of the game. Now they want back in and are actively seeking a new violist. They’ve heard Mel Farran play, and they like what they’ve heard. They’re more and more certain that he’ll be a  good fit for their small elite ensemble.

They call themselves The Staccati, and Peter Lovesey lays bare the inner workings of this  foursome in a way both fascinating and completely believable.

Mel is deeply grateful to be part of the quartet, and he feels challenged to get his playing up to their high standard while at the same time achieving a perfect blend with the group:

He’d need to fit in more practice. In spite of the praise from the others, he knew Ivan was right. His intonation – accuracy of pitch – could be improved. With such latitude possible in their creation of sound, string players had a huge advantage over anyone else in an orchestra, yet there were phases, say in a long legato line with open strings, when the pitch should be suppressed. He’d noted a couple of passages in the Beethoven when he needed to adapt better to  the violins.

The pitch should be suppressed? I admit, I don’t entirely understand what’s being said here, but I do get the point about  the unique capabilities of stringed instruments.

You wouldn’t think that the lives of these intense and dedicated artists could intersect with a criminal investigation, but  that’s exactly what happens. For a limited period, the Staccati take up residence at Bath Spa University. It’s an arrangement that benefits them, the university community, and local music lovers. This last is not a cohort with which Peter Diamond, head of the Bath CID, would ordinarily be associated. But he comes to a cautious appreciation of the music itself and of those who bring it so exquisitely to life.

Although Peter would be the first to admit that he’s no ‘culture vulture,’ he can nevertheless shoot the breeze with the best of them:

“Beethoven, wasn’t it?” Diamond ventured.
Anthony was supposed to get the idea that Diamond was a fellow lover of music. He didn’t show a glimmer of appreciation.
“I couldn’t place the piece,” Diamond added, which was true. He was about as capable of placing a piece of Beethoven as he was of riding a Derby winner. “Do you mind telling me what it was?”
Opus 59, Number 3,” Anthony said.
“Silly me. I’m a duffer with numbers.”
“In C major.”
“C major.” Diamond raised his thumb as if all had been made clear. “Any particular part?”
“The fugue.”
“And to me it sounded just as a fugue should.”
“It was too fast.”
“A shade quick, I’ll give you.”

Here it is:

Peter does in fact he does have a passion for certain works of art. In fact, the only way his lady friend Paloma could get him to take a vacation in one of the capitals of continental Europe was by choosing Vienna, the setting of Peter’s favorite film, The Third Man.

The Third Man is terrific. It’s hard to see how it could be anything but, with stars like Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Trevor Howard, and a screenplay by Graham Greene.

The 'Wiener Riesenrad' (Viennese Giant Wheel in the Prater amusement park, where Harry Lime/Orson Welles makes his famous Cuckoo Clock speech

The ‘Wiener Riesenrad’ (Viennese Giant Wheel) in the Prater amusement park, where Harry Lime/Orson Welles makes his famous Cuckoo Clock speech

Inevitably in a Peter Diamond novel, we’re treated to a disquisition on some notable feature of the City of Bath. This time it’s Sydney Gardens, “a haven of quiet in a busy city” and, during her sojourns in Bath, one of Jane Austen’s favorite haunts: sydney-gardens

Literate, entertaining, and wide-ranging, The Tooth Tattoo is a triumph, one of the best novels by one of the greatest procedural writers currently at work.

Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey

The Staccati also perform one of my favorite pieces: String Quartet No.14 in D minor, known as Death And the Maiden, by Franz Schubert. Her it is, performed by the Alban Berg Quartet:

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‘Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession.’ A Murder of Quality, being the second George Smiley novel by John LeCarre

October 19, 2013 at 1:23 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

9780802714428_p0_v1_s260x420  A couple of weeks ago, a friend and former co-worker at the library made what I thought at the time a rather peculiar recommendation. Like me, Nancy is a crime fiction buff, and she knows my taste pretty well. She assured me that unlike the espionage novels for which John LeCarre is justly famous, A Murder of Quality, published in 1962, is actually a mystery, and a fairly traditional one at that. The events of the novel take place at Carne, an exclusive boys’ school on England’s South Coast.

Now I just love crime fiction set in academia, so I decided to take Nancy up on her suggestion. And I’m very glad  that I did.

For this reader, one of the primary attraction of this novel lay in the opportunity it provided to know George Smiley in his early years. LeCarre indicates, however, that his famous creation’s character was formed very early on:

Smiley himself was one of those solitaries who seem to have come into the world fully educated at the age of eighteen. Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country’s enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed. Assimilation is his highest aim, he learns to love the crowds who pass him in the street without a glance; he clings to them for his anonymity and his safety. His fear makes him servile – he could embrace the shoppers who jostle him in their impatience and force him from the pavement. He could adore the officials, the police, the bus conductors, for the terse indifference of their attitudes.

(My intention was to quote only  the first part of this paragraph, but I was so struck by this vivid passage that I couldn’t stop typing.)

Then there’s this rather more succinct assessment:

A stringent critic of his own motives, he had discovered after long observation that he tended to be less a creature of intellect than his tastes and habits might suggest; once in the war he had been described by his superiors as possessing the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin, which seemed to him not wholly unjust.

A Murder of Quality is the second novel to feature George Smiley. (The first is Call for the Dead;  these are also LeCarre’s first published works of fiction, respectively.) There are a number of passages in this second outing where LeCarre strives to illuminate the character and personality of Smiley. Here, he is seen through the eyes of an old friend. Miss Brimley, editor of a journal called the Christian Voice. She is anxious about Stella Rode, one of the journal’s contributors and the wife of  teacher at Carne. Miss Brimley asks Smiley to have a look at a letter recently sent to her by Mrs. Rode. Its purport seems ominous.

As Smiley studies the document, Miss Brimley studies Smiley:

Watching him, Miss Brimley wondered what impression he made on those who did not know him well. She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation.

Call for the Dead opens with a description of Smiley that’s if anything, even less complimentary than Miss Brimley’s: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” That’s pretty blunt, I’d say – even to the point of being brutal.

One of the strangest aspects of George Smiley’s back story concerns his virtually inexplicable marriage to Lady Ann Sercomb, a lofty, high born beauty who stayed with him for two years before running away with a Cuban racing car driver. I’m getting ready to read Call for  the Dead, and I confess I’m curious as to whether I’ll be further enlightened as to how this odd and patently doomed pairing came about.

Quite apart from Smiley himself, A Murder of Quality contains some memorable description:

The village of Pylle lies to the south of the North Fields, upon a high spur which rises steeply from the damp pastures of the Carne valley. It consists of a handful of stone cottages and a small inn where you may drink beer in the landlord’s parlour. Seen from Carne playing fields, the village could easily be mistaken for an outcrop of rock upon a tor, for the hill on which it stands appears conical from the northern side. Local historians claim that Pylle is the oldest settlement in Dorset, that its name is Anglo-Saxon for harbour, and that it served the Romans as a port when all the lowlands around were covered by the sea. They will tell you, too, that King Arthur rested there after seven months at sea, and paid homage to Saint Andrew, the patron saint of sailors, on the site of Pylle Church, where he burned a candle for each month he had spent afloat; and that in the church, built to commemorate his visit and standing to this day lonely and untended on the hillside, there is a bronzee coin as witness to his visit – the very one King Arthur gave to the verger before he set sail again for the Isle of Avalon.

I love  the way LeCarre takes you back to ancient times, and even further  back, to myth and legend. This is something that British writers are skilled at doing. In On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan mentions in an almost casual aside “the pretty village of Ewelme, where Chaucer’s granddaughter was interred.” A single phrase catapults you from the mid-twentieth century back to the Middle Ages!


I am not well read in John LeCarre’s oeuvre, nor do I make any claim for myself as a scholar of his work. But I found someone who is: Prof. Myron J. Aronoff of Rutgers University. He’s written a book, in fact, entitled The Spy Novels of John LeCarre: Balancing Ethics and Politics. Here is how the introduction to the first chapter begins:

Le Carré relates how he came to create George Smiley, by “putting him together from various components–either real or imagined–of my own situation, and adding the solvent of my own filial affection and admiration” (JHM, 1986:14). He suggests that he and Smiley were alike in more ways than the differences in their age and appearance might suggest. Among the qualities that he shares with Smiley are shyness, a desire for anonymity, and the fact that they were both intelligence officers and German scholars. Although le Carré had a turbulent childhood, Smiley had none. “You do not have to be a genius to guess that Smiley as a father-figure in my imagination was the very antithesis of everything that my own erratic father had been in reality” (JHM:14).2

(Click here to read further.)

John LeCarre in Cornwall, where he now resides: "I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities."

John LeCarre in Cornwall, where he now resides: “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities.”


I was fascinated by the insight into George Smiley’s character, but even aside from that factor, I found A Murder of Quality to be an absorbing read and a well plotted mystery. The seeds of the later LeCarre – the cynicism about people’s true motives, the characters’ bitterness at how their lives have turned out, the incisive and startlingly lyrical writing –  are present in this novel.


George Smiley is the main protagonist in four novels besides Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality; in addition, he makes cameo appearances in several others. A complete list of LeCarre’s works can be found – where else? – on Stop! You’re Killing Me.

A Murder of Quality was filmed for  television in 1991, with Denholm Elliott in the role of George Smiley. I’ve not yet had the chance to view this production. Neither have I seen the 2011 film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in which Gary Oldman plays Smiley. But I think that for those of us who came of age during the Cold War, there can be only one actor who was very embodiment of LeCarre’s singular creation:

Alec Guinness as George Smiley

Alec Guinness as George Smiley

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And now for something completely different: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, by Fred Vargas

October 13, 2013 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction, Uncategorized)

“The Ghost Riders of Ordebec” by Fred Vargas (Penguin).

“That night,” she said slowly, “Lina saw the Furious Army.”

“The what?”

“The Furious Army,” the woman repeated, in a whisper. “And Herbier was with them. And he was screaming. And three others with him.”

“Is it a club? Something to do with hunting?”

Madame Vendremot was staring at Adamsberg in disbelief.

“The Furious Army,” she whispered again. “The Great Hunt. The Ghost Riders. Haven’t you heard of them?”

“No,” said Adamsberg, staring back at her stupefied gaze. “Come back some other time and you can tell me all about it.”

“But you don’t even recognize the name? Hellequin’s Horde,” she whispered.

Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is baffled by this exchange. So was I. A tiny, nervous woman from Ordebec in Normandy has come to Paris expressly to see the Commissaire and warn him of the threat of sudden death for certain citizens of the town. Because of her sighting, Madame Vendremot’s daughter Lina knows who they are – all except one, that is. For his part, Adamsberg finds the purport of her message almost incomprehensible. Nevertheless, he decides to travel to Ordebec himself, to see the how the land lies.

I’ve known about the Commissaire Adamsberg series for quite some time. I knew they were highly thought of by  crime fiction cognoscenti. I tried several, but I couldn’t get into them. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, though, was getting such enthusiastic reviews, I decided to try again. And this one worked for me – worked, in fact, extremely well.

Adamsberg is an unusual, rather enigmatic character. “I like the way his mind works,” Frances of Usual Suspects told me when she recommended the series. I do too. Flashes of insight can be succeeded – or preceded – with profound inertia. The Commissaire is a master of lateral thinking. Or rather, of thinking about anything but the crime he’s attempting to solve. The Ordebec investigation provides scope for his strangeness. He likes to sit outside beneath a tree munching on an apple, even when it’s raining. He uses up a fair amount of mental energy trying to figure out why the cows in a distant field seem never to move.

And he takes slow, solitary walks along the Chemin de Bonnival, in the forest of Alance. This is the place where Lina claims to have seen the Furious Army. Just what is this strange, threatening entity?

Adamsberg’s second in command is Adrien Danglard, a close friend as well as a valued colleague. At Adamsberg’s house one evening, Danglard, who takes a passionate interest in all things medieval, seeks to enlighten his boss on the subject of the Ghost Riders.

….this ancient cavalcade causing havoc in the countryside is damaged. The horses and their riders have no flesh and many of their limbs are missing. It’s an army of the dead, of the putrefied dead, an army of ghostly riders, wild-eyed and screaming, unable to get to heaven.

Danglard concludes this vivid description with two words: “Imagine that.”

The Commissaire struggles to do just that:

Adamsberg approached the fireplace again, curious to hear a little more, and leaned against the brick hearth. The fact that the Riders singled out unpunished villains interested him…. You can tell yourself you don’t believe this kind of thing, but it’s difficult not to believe it. The pernicious idea digs a deep channel. It silently infiltrates the the unavowed corridors of the mind, penetrates, and trickles through. You suppress the idea, it lies dormant for a while, then it returns.

The Furious Army, Hellequin’s Horde, the Ghost Riders, the Wild Hunt – it’s a legend of many names, with many manifestations. Most likely it originated in Scandinavia.

Even in Winter, you are not safe. Stay indoors, attend your hearths. Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time.

(The above excerpt is from an essay entitled “Penance, Power, and Pursuit – On the Trail of the Wild Hunt,” by Ari Berk and William Spytma.)

Adamsberg is strongly attracted to Lina – he claims that she “irradiated” him – but he makes no move toward her, and nothing comes of it. This is of a piece with the general tenor of a novel in which things seem to progress – if you can call it progress – in a halting, dreamy way, punctuated by episodes of high drama. It’s an extremely effective narrative style, especially with the author’s sly wit, reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, interspersed throughout.

And what of this author? Fred Vargas was born in Paris in 1957. She has trained as an historian and an archeologist. (Her real name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.) And she has won the CWA International Dagger Award four times, in 2006 for The Three Evangelists, in 2007 for Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, in 2009 for The Chalk Circle Man, and this year for The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, an honor given jointly to her and to Pierre Lemaitre for his novel Alex. (One is tempted to exclaim: “The French are coming, the French are coming; watch out, Scandinavians!”) A complete list pf Vargas’s novels can be found at Stop! You’re Killing Me.

While the Ordebec story moves forward – or sideways, depending on any number of things – other things are happening. Adamsberg’s twenty-eight year old son Armel, nicknamed Zerk, is currently living with him. This is a progeny whose existence was unknown to the Commissaire until a short while ago. Zerk is helping to care for a wounded pigeon. The bird’s misfortune was caused by a deliberate, cruel trick; father and son are determined to nurse it back to health. (And Adamsberg would dearly love to apprehend the responsible party.) Zerk also helps the Commissaire to  shield a hapless young man who is about to be framed for a murder he did not commit.

It’s desirable in a police procedural that the author include believable and interesting people in the protagonist’s team of investigators.  Team members can be characterized by their strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. Vargas is especially good at this (as is Peter Turnbull).

To sum up, I liked this novel very much. Vargas writes  beautifully, and credit must also go to the translator Sian Reynolds. I look forward to  the further adventures of Commissaire Adamsberg, the singular detective with an equally singular team.

Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas

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The Usual Suspects discuss Broken Harbor by Tana French

October 11, 2013 at 2:21 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

brokenharbor_us  Someone in our group mentioned that a friend of hers had recently expressed surprised that we had never discussed a novel by Tana French. Tuesday night we remedied the omission by tackling Broken Harbor, this author’s latest magnum opus.

Tana French has won several awards and even more nominations since she burst onto the crime fiction scene in 2007 with Into the Woods. I’ve not read that novel; in fact, Broken Harbor is the first work by Tana French that I’ve read all the way through (although I almost didn’t – get all the way through, I mean). I had dipped my toe into both The Likeness and Faithful Place but was not enthralled by either. Rather, I was so put off by their length that I decided to bail early. I could tell French was a gifted writer, but I simply was not drawn in by her narratives. So I looked upon this Usual Suspects choice as a chance to stick with one of French’s titles and see if I could discern the magic that was clearly present for her many devoted readers, some of whom are in our group.

Tana French

Tana French

Susan, our group leader, started us off with some background on Tana French’s life and career. The author was born here in the U.S. but lived all over the world as a child. She attended Trinity College, Dublin, and trained as an actress. Ultimately she decided to make her home in Ireland, where she now lives with her husband and daughter. (There was the inevitable question of how French’s fist name should be pronounced. Your say ‘Tayna,’ I say ‘Tahna’….)

Susan then solicited the impressions of group members, and I confess, I couldn’t – and didn’t – wait to get my two cents in. When I took up Broken Harbor, I was hoping for an epiphany, a revelation as to why French is so widely praised. As you’ve probably already guessed, that did not happen. Instead, I found myself exasperated by this novel for a whole host of reasons.

First, let me stipulate that I began with the audiobook. The reader, Stephen Hogan, was excellent, putting in the right amount of Irish lilt without going over the top. And I was genuinely engaged, at least, at the beginning.  The novel begins with the description of a horrific  crime: the Spains, Patrick, Jenny, and their two children, have been savagely attacked in their home. By the time the police arrive, summoned by Jenny’s hysterical sister Fiona, all are deceased except for Jenny, who is clinging to life by a very slender thread.

By this time, we’ve met the detectives in charge of the investigation: Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy and Richie Curran. “Scorcher” is  a hotshot on the Dublin Murder Squad who boasts a high solve rate. Richie is young and new, but Mick decides to partner with him anyway on this high profile case. He believes that Richie has potential, and that he, Mick, can help him to realize it.

Almost from the beginning of the novel, the character of Mick Kennedy was a problem  for me. I found him arrogant and preening. He’s condescending to Richie, who seemed to me almost from the beginning to have a better interviewing technique than his supposed mentor – more intuitive, more empathetic. I think part of the problem was that the novel is told in the first person by Mick. His trumpeting of his own virtues is oddly at variance with what the reader experiences in the course of the interviews with suspects and witnesses, where he comes across as very unsubtle and something of a bully. (Now I was assured that in Broken Harbor, he was considerably toned down from how he was depicted in French’s previous novel Faithful Place. I confess this rather amazed me.)

It was definitely time for me  to stop ranting and let others have their say. Someone suggested that Mick was a very insecure person who compensated for his feelings of inadequacy by adopting a kind of swaggering hubris as part of his public persona. When he was still a  child (or possibly a teenager, I don’t exactly recall), his mother committed suicide. This traumatic event happened while the family were on a seaside holiday – Mick, his parents, and his sisters Dina and Geri. While Geri and Mick grew to adulthood with their respective psyches more or less intact, Dina was not so lucky. When we first encounter her in Broken Harbor, she is a woman with fairly severe psychiatric issues, a diagnosed schizophrenic with occasional psychotic manifestations. When she descends on Mick, who’s in the midst of the high stakes, high pressure investigation into the attack on the Spains, she is unrelenting – completely focused on her own needs, alternately wheedling and raging at her brother.

Mick’s scenes with his unfortunate sister seemed to drag on forever. One sympathizes with her plight; nevertheless, she’ s a very unpleasant character to be around. Under the circumstances, Mick shows admirable forbearance in dealing with her. He is far more patient than I could ever have been, in a similar situation. (And I speak, to some degree, from my own experience.)

The events of Broken Harbor take place against the backdrop of the demise of the so-called Celtic Tiger. This is the term used to describe the Ireland’s economy from roughly the 1990s up to 2007. An economic boom, fueled by real estate speculation, heavy foreign investment, and questionable banking practices was followed inevitably by the bust. (Sound familiar?)

Pat and Jenny have recently moved into a new development called Ocean View. It’s far enough from Dublin that they can’t reach friends and family easily. Meanwhile the amenities promised by the developers fail to materialize; homes languish in a partially completed state; neighbors are few and far between and not particularly disposed to be neighborly. And why should they be? They have no common history, no long established ‘local’ where they can go any time and be sure to encounter a friendly face or two.

All of this might have  been tolerable if Pat hadn’t lost his job. But he did. And as time drags on and he remains unemployed, it seems that he’s in danger of losing more – much more….

We all agreed that French made effective use of this backdrop. It’s a poignant scenario. Ireland seemed finally to have become a place that could provide jobs and quality of life for its young people. Perhaps they could stop the perpetual outward migration that had characterized the country for so much of its history. But it was not to be, after all. And in a way, what happens to the Spains is a microcosm of what’s happening in the whole of Ireland. Jenny and Pat bought into the dream, but it proved to be an illusion made up of empty promises that would never be fulfilled.

Here’s the first impression gleaned by Detectives Kennedy and Curran:

At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards LITTLE GEMS CHILDCARE and DIAMONDCUT LEISURE CENTER. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance, something was wrong.

The houses were too much alike. … [M]ost of the driveways were empty, and not in a way that said everyone was out powering the economy. You could look straight through three out of four houses, to bare rear windows and gray patches of sky …

‘Jaysus,’ Richie said … ‘The village of the damned.'”


This was one of the best book discussions I’ve ever attended. The Suspects made many illuminating observations of various aspects of the novel. In my initial litany of complaints, I said that the interviews of witnesses and suspects went on way too long and were tedious and repetitious. In my view, they slowed the plot down to a crawl. (By now, Dear Reader of this blog, you know that I am certainly NOT a person with strong opinions!) But Frances felt that these dialog-intensive passages served to open up the characters’ respective psyches – to allow the reader to, as it were, peer into their very souls.

Marge, for her part, felt that for a police procedural, some of the procedures followed by the officers seemed faulty. She was thinking in particular of the initial scenes inside the Spain residence. I think I agree with her, but I feel as though I read – or rather, listened to – the beginning of the book a long time ago and so cannot be more specific.

We all agreed that there’s some powerful writing in Broken Harbor. I just wish it had been in the service of a more tightly controlled narrative. The hardback clocks in at 450 pages, and I think even those who liked the book better than I did felt that it was too long.
What I’ve written here is at best a partial recap of Tuesday night’s session. What I meant when I said that it was such an outstanding discussion is that the comments were so thoughtful and perceptive that I was  argued, at least to a degree, out of my wholly negative view of the novel. Part of my problem may have been all the accolades that have been heaped on this author. That always causes me to view that person’s work with a degree of skepticism – as in, “Okay, you’re supposed to be so wonderful? Show me!”

Someone voiced the opinion Tuesday night that some authors win too many awards too early in their writing careers. This put me in mind of Louise Penny. I loved her first novel, Still Life, and I thought Bury Your Dead was simply terrific. Trick of the Light I liked a bit less. And A Beautiful Mystery, which I expected to love, I found so inert and turgid that half way through, I had to give up. Like Tana French, Louse Penny is the darling of reviewers. And like Tana French, she writes beautifully. I have every intention of reading her latest Inspector Gamache novel, How the Light Gets In; it has received such glowing notices. I trust I will not be disappointed. Will I read another novel by Tana French? Possibly – but not definitely.

A final word about our leader, Susan. This was a long and involved novel. In fact, at the start of our meeting, Susan remarked that she hadn’t remembered it being as long as it was. Well, there’s nothing like having to lead a discussion to remind you of the length and complexity of your chosen novel. I experienced the same sinking sensation when I first set about preparing for the Cop To Corpse discussion that I led in July. We had a good laugh over Susan’s wry observation, but the fact is, she did an outstanding job, demonstrating impressive mastery of this complex material.

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Stop the presses: Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature!

October 10, 2013 at 5:14 pm (Awards, books, Short stories)


Yes, yes, YES!!


One keeps hearing that she is greatest short story master currently at work. Really, she’s one of the best writers, period – in any form or medium.

Click here for the official announcement.

Here are some links to various media: The New YorkTimes,  The Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, and The Toronto Globe and Mail. Here’s the lead in Globe and Mail article:

For the first time in history, the Nobel prize in literature has been awarded to a Canadian. Alice Munro, one of the world’s most respected and admired writers, was named this morning as the winner of the prize in an especially notable year: one in which she has announced her retirement.

How proud they must be, and with every reason.
9780307264862_p0_v1_s260x420  If you are a newcomer to the works of this author, the collection Carried Away, published by Everyman’s Library in 2006, is a good place to start. Munro selected her favorites from her own body of work, to be included in this volume. Be sure not to miss the two collections that have come out since that year: Too Much Happiness and Dear Life.

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Outstanding entries in two favorite crime fiction series (by authors who themselves are something of a mystery) Part Two: Peter Turnbull

October 6, 2013 at 11:14 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

[Link to Part One: Bill James]



Monday, 5 June, 10.00 hours – 19.45 hours

In which Reginald Webster acts upon a whim and by this doing causes an interesting development, and the courteous reader is privy to another demon in George Hennessy’s life, but also to the joys therein.

A superscription in this style appears at the start of each chapter of a Hennessy and Yellich novel. The reader may be ‘courteous.’ ‘gracious.’ or ‘dear’; the plot developments hinted at are expounded on and clarified as the chapter unfolds.

In Gift Wrapped, a series of cryptic postcards lead police to the unhallowed site of a burial. The body unearthed there belongs to one who has been dead for quite some time. Who is this person? And how did he/she end up beneath the soil at the edge of a field? From this strange discovery, many mysteries commence to flow….

Peter Turnbull is a somewhat elusive – reclusive? – -presence on the crime fiction scene. From the  Gale Database Biography in Context (accessible online  through the library’s website), we learn that he was born in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, in 1950. He was educated at Richmond College of Fine Arts, Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, the University of Huddersfield,  Cardiff University, where he received his certificate in social work. He was then variously employed as a steelworker and crematorium assistant in Sheffield and London, and as a social worker in Brooklyn, NY. (I am curious to know how this last came about, its duration, etc.)

The writing in this series is distinguished by its curiously antique style. I can readily accept that it might not be to everyone’s taste. (The same can be said of Bill James’s prose style in the Harpur and Iles series.) Here, for instance, is Detective Chief Inspector George Hennessey:

“Warthill and Gate Helmsley…it does sound like the rural north of England, which will now be in all its summer bounty and splendour.”

Do real people – never mind real police officers – actually express themselves in this somewhat flowery manner? Well, probably not, at least not any more, although I confess I rather wish they did!

Peter Turnbull is good at concocting ingenious plots, and in my opinion, this is one of the best that he’s ever come up with. As the story moves forward, all sorts of  twists and turns materialize, evoking those “Aha!” moments that are meat and drink to crime fiction fans. I certainly recommend Gift Wrapped – in  fact, I recommend any and all the books in this series. And you can jump in at any point, because in each novel, Turnbull briefly recapitulates the history of the main and supporting characters. One reviewer complained of this practice, calling it needlessly repetitious. I like it very much. You get a sense that the officers’ personal lives exist in a kind of eternal present, while they do battle with the ever changing face of evil in the world outside.

Here’s an example of Turnbull’s method. In this scene, George Hennessey is standing in his back garden of his home, seeming to converse with someone. But in fact, he is completely alone. What is going on?

The gentle and most gracious reader will, however, be saddened to learn that our  hero speaking to, apparently, no one at all is not the symptom of harmless eccentricity in a a man in his late middle years; rather he is fully sane and his practice of telling the rear garden of his day is the consequence of a dreadful tragedy and the second significant loss in his life.

We are apprised of this tragedy anew in each of the novels in the series.
As always, we can thank Stop! You’re Killing Me for a comprehensive list of the works of Peter Turnbull. In addition to Gift Wrapped, I’ve reviewed No Stone UnturnedChill FactorOnce a BikerTurning PointDeliver Us From Evil, and The Altered Case  in this space.

In  his comments on my review of Turning PointMartin Edwards, who blogs at Do You Write Under Your Own Name, had this to say:

Peter Turnbull, whom I’ve known for fifteen years or more, is a very self-effacing individual, but a writer (in my opinion) of real quality. I’ve been familiar with his books since I was a student, and the P Division stories were quite prominent in their day. But he never ‘broke out’ and is now relatively little known. But he is a crime writer who deserves more recognition.

The P Division novels, an earlier series by Turnbull, are set in Glasgow, where the author lived from 1978 to 1995, at which time he decided to become a full time writer. I read several of them before getting into the Hennessey and Yellich series, and if memory serves, I greatly enjoyed them. Their titles and publication dates can be found at the Stop! You’re Killing Me link above.  crisp2  41S3D0IoVaL


If you’d like a taste of Turnbull’s writing, read “The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train.” This nicely crafted little tale won the short story Edgar Award for 2012. Its mention of ‘walking the walls’ in York brought back happy memories of my visit to  that magical city in 2005.




Here is the only photograph I’ve ever been able to find of Peter Turnbull: 53811

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Outstanding entries in two favorite crime fiction series (by authors who themselves are something of a mystery) Part One: Bill James

October 4, 2013 at 3:49 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

9781780290430_p0_v1_s260x420  Play Dead is the thirtieth Harpur & Iles novel. I’ve read about twenty books in this series. They’re a really fast read – too fast, because I’m always left wanting more (as opposed to weightier tomes that lumber along at a snail’s pace until you want to yell “Get on with it already!). Play Dead clocks in at 220 pages – pages filled with James’s signature mix of frivolity, wit, savagery, profanity, and literary allusions. The prose style is so distinctive, it could belong to no other writer that I know of. (‘Col’ is what Iles calls his second in command, Colin Harpur.)

Apparently, in one of the local papers Iles had noticed a theatre advertisement for a play called The Revenger’s Tragedy, by somebody centuries ago he had heard of, or by somebody else he’d also heard of. One of the things about Iles was he’d heard of quite a few people from the past, not just  the obvious like Nelson or Moses, but less familiar folk. This play was on at the King’s theatre in the city centre. He said: “As you’ll know, Col, some give the authorship to Tourneur, spelled with two U’s, not just the one as in “turner and fitter,” but many claim it for Thomas Middleton, and others say others. There are scholars who earn a fair screw by saying, “I’d bet on Cyril Tourneur with two U’s” or “I’d bet on Thomas Middleton,” or “I think X or Y or Z because of the unique way he uses the word ‘and’.” The piece has killings, rape, seduction, procurement by the hero of his sister – really zestful, joyous, lip-smacking evil. The hero talks to his very dead mistress, calling her “the bony lady,” meaning not that she’s anorexic but a skeleton.”

Among other things, this passage reminded me just why, all those years ago, I found my graduate school course in Elizabethan drama excluding Shakespeare so mind-boggling….

So, what’s this impromptu bit of literary criticism doing in the middle of a murder mystery? You have to read the novel to find out, and further, to get a handle on one of the strangest and most volatile working relationships in crime fiction.
Bill James – one of several pseudonyms used by James Allan Tucker –  was born in 1929 in South Wales, where he still resides. Having served as a Royal Air Force pilot in the Second World War, he began his writing career as a journalist. A brief biography of Bill James can be found at the Severn House site. (I am most  grateful to Severn House for publishing the work of so many fine crime fiction authors.)

I was delighted to find this (relatively recent) in depth interview with Bill James at the Detectives Beyond Borders site. And I am in complete agreement with Alex Grant’s assessment, made in 2002, of James’s place in the pantheon of crime writers.

In Play Dead, Harpur and Iles are tasked with looking into possible corruption in another police force. The first phase of their investigation is described in the previous novel, Undercover. (It so happens that Iles has a particular animus against undercover operations. He has good reason for feeling that way.) In point of fact, over the course of this series, a long story arc unfolds. You don’t necessarily have to start reading at the very beginning, but the farther back you go, the more enjoyment you’ll get from the series.
In Addition to Undercover, I’ve reviewed Girls, PixIn the Absence of Iles, and Hotbed in this space.  In addition, I wrote a retrospective of the Harpur & Iles novels in 2007.

This is the only photograph I’ve managed to find of Bill James:


Coming soon: Part Two: Peter Turnbull.

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Tom Clancy

October 3, 2013 at 9:33 pm (books, Remembrance)

The original cover, one I remember vividly

The original cover, one I remember vividly

No one could be immersed in the world of popular fiction in 1984 and not be impressed by Tom Clancy’s sensational entry into the field. With The Hunt for Red October, he virtually invented the subgenre of techno-thriller.

At that time, I had been working at the library for only two years, and I well remember the heavy demand for that title. Our patrons were especially intrigued by the fact that Clancy was something of a local celebrity, hailing as he did from Calvert County in Southern Maryland.

19691  Here are two articles from the Washington Post about Mr. Clancy, one by Emily Langer and the other by Dennis Drabelle.

Tom Clancy  April 12, 1974-October 1, 2013

Tom Clancy: April 12, 1974-October 1, 2013

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